The Slow Way Round

“I could do that on my Fizzy!” We had been watching an episode of The Long Way Round and it was meant to be a funny comment; but my dad being the adventurer he is, suggested that I could ride up to meet him in South Wales for the Dawn to Dusk 12 hour race during the summer (which coincidentally Charley Boorman would be racing in!)

First I had to find a riding companion. The obvious choice was my mate Jack who rides a Derbi Senda 50cc (far more modern, and supposedly reliable, than my 1988 Yamaha FS1). We decided to make a big trip out of it, so out came the map, the paper and the pens; and the directions were worked out avoiding all motorways and major A roads. The journey there would be a total of 219 miles and would take us 2 days. This may seem like an excessively long time, but warp speed on my Fizzy is only 40mph!

The date was set for Thursday August 25th, the same day as we got our GCSE results. Wednesday came and it was time to pack up the mini magnetic tank bag and the giant rucksack. We economised by packing fewer pants and socks and using the inside out and wrong way round trick so the same pair would last 4 days (mmm nice!).

And so the momentous day dawned. Our first leg would take us from New Cross, through London to Heathrow, then on to Reading and finally to an overnight at Jack’s auntie’s in Cirencester. An estimated travel time of 4 or 5 hours seemed to be enough, so off we set. Our epic adventure had begun.

We had planned to stop only for fuel and regular texts to anxious mothers waiting at home, but our first stop was a hugely long way away… Victoria Embankment! Jack needed fuel — already! I was so loaded up with baggage I decided not to get off, in case I was unable to remount. We stopped again not far from Heathrow to check the map and, despite over an hour of riding, we had barely covered any ground, so needed to push on. Up until this point it was a gloriously sunny day, but then, out of nowhere the heavens opened and the rain poured down. After another quick stop to put on waterproofs, we were away again. Previously both the Fizzy and the Derbi had failed in the rain, but like the trooper it is, my bike battled on without stopping.

Jack’s was a different story. “It just stopped,” he yelled to me at the traffic lights. N000! Barely into the journey and we were suffering our first setback (though, as it turns out, not our last). Eventually we got it going and concluded it was the rain getting on the spark plug or coil. The weather had dried out so we didn’t worry and off we went, direction Reading!

Once we were clear of London and the traffic, the riding was easy going and, despite the 40mph speed, we were moving steadily westward. We had travelled 50 miles in about 2 and a half hours. The weather was getting very hot and I was dreading having to negotiate Reading town centre. Fortunately this wasn’t to be, as I got us hopelessly lost in the suburbs! We needed to find the A417 to Pangbourne, which would take us all the way through Streatley, Wantage, Lechlade, and Fairford to Cirencester; were we would recharge and get some sleep. So after going round the same roundabout 4 times and trying every exit, to my delight I saw the sign that pointed us in the right direction.

This was where the real riding started. The open road lay ahead of us and the prospect of a beautiful country ride beckoned. Over hills and dales we travelled, journeying ever closer to our destination. Although the scenery was breathtaking and the riding the best it’s ever been, we had been travelling for hours and, what with stopping for tea breaks and map checking, I was getting quite tired and so was Jack. We stopped after a while to stretch our legs and have a drink; Jack needed to get something, so he unstrapped the bungee and took the bag off the bike. We finished and set off with no plan to stop until I needed fuel.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case as I looked in my mirror and saw a black blur flopping off Jack’s bike! My heart stopped as I took a moment to realise what I’d just seen. Luckily it was only the bag that had fallen off and as I turned round, Jack was picking it up and fixing . it back on — this time more securely.

It had been just over 100 miles from home and I’d noticed that petrol stations were becoming pretty rare, so despite not even being on reserve, I wanted to fill up so I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere with just Jack and a flock of sheep for company. As we crested the top of what seemed to be a mountain of a hill (owing to the fact that my bike struggled to hit 20mph uphill) I saw a petrol station and pulled in only to find that they were completely out of unleaded. Jack asked where the next petrol was and luckily it was only four miles away in Rowstock. “You go ahead in case you run out and stop” yelled Jack as we left.

Dusk was approaching and the sight of the giant orange sun sinking slowly over luscious green fields is one that I’ll never forget. A few minutes later, I reached the next petrol station. I looked back to find that Jack wasn’t there. So I waited … and waited. It was then that I realised something was amiss and turned back. A couple of miles down the road I spotted Jack moving very slowly. I pulled up along side him. “Whats wrong?” I asked. “It just stopped working!” he replied. Luckily the garage was only a couple of miles up the road and so Jack crawled along and turned in.

After we had filled up, Jack tried again but it was no good. It started but there was no power. First we rang Jack’s dad, Milky, and he ran through the possibilities. No luck. So I rang my dad, Dave, but we still couldn’t make it work. By now the garage was closed and everyone had gone home. It was dark and cold, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be dark and cold anywhere except on a Big Bike Adventure, in the middle of nowhere, with my mate Jack! After an hour of taking bits off and poking around, and despite the help and suggestions from the very nice people at the Spar we’d still found nothing, so it was time to ring the relay man and get a lift to Cirencester, where Milky would meet us and try to fix the bike in the morning.

The truck took about an hour to arrive, which meant that 3 hours had passed since we left the other petrol station four miles back! Once Jack’s bike had been strapped on, it was time to ask the driver to put mine on too. There was only one bike rack, so after the guy had explained that I wasn’t to tell a living soul, and that he couldn’t accept responsibility, he strapped my bike to the frame of the bed and off we went again. I was little gutted that we’d got that far, only to be stopped in our tracks so close to our overnight stop.

Milky left home in Meopham, Kent, just before we set off from the petrol garage in Rowstock. An hour’s drive (that probably would’ve taken us nearer two on the bikes) later we arrived in Cirencester — and to our horror we saw Milky’s big V-Strom already sitting outside the house! By now it was way past eleven and we were completely knackered. Our first day had seen us travel 130 miles in 10 hours! Double what we’d expected! A cup of tea and bowl of spaghetti later, courtesy of aunty, and it was time for some much needed sleep.

Day 2, and it was an early start. Milky had already had a look at Jack’s bike, but was unable to diagnose the problem, so it was off to a garage to see if they could sort it. Meanwhile we showered and I loaded my bike. The mechanics couldn’t figure out the problem either, so a very upset Jack had to accept that he was going to have to travel on the back of his dad’s bike.

We bid farewell to our overnight hosts and continued on our journey towards Stroud, Gloucester and Monmouth. The morning’s drive was even better than the previous days, and with Milky navigating I had nothing to concentrate on except the road ahead. And a lovely road it was too! It was plain sailing all the way to Monmouth, where we hit some serious town centre traffic! We spent a while trying to find an alternative route out, but in the end we just stuck with it and eventually passed through and were making good progress once again.

After leaving Monmouth we went back into the countryside and it just got better and better. Unfortunately this meant bigger hills, which in turn meant slower speeds — for me anyway. My frustration wasn’t helped by Milky roaring past with Jack giving me a broad grin and rude hand gestures, as I was left to hold up a line of traffic! Despite this, I couldn’t help but take in the scenery as it seemed to go on for miles and miles ahead of us. I was feeling really good and couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer; everything just seemed to flow together, we didn’t get lost and my bike hadn’t faltered once. That is until I heard a very nasty rattling noise coming from the bike. I tried to ignore it but it got a lot louder.

I pulled over and had a listen. To my great relief it turned out to be just a rivet that had come loose on my front mudguard and was rattling. Still going strong, my overloaded Fizzy didn’t complain and trooped on. We were well in to Wales when it was time for me to refuel for only the second time since leaving home; I was quite worried now though as I’d been on reserve for about fifteen miles, but to my amazement when we finally found a station there was still fuel in there.

It was in Merthyr Tydfil that we filled up and it was also here that I became separated from Milky and Jack. This wouldn’t have been such a big problem had I been navigating, but I wasn’t, Milky was. I only had road signs and the memory of what had been written on my piece of paper to go by. I didn’t know whether they were behind or in front, but figured that they were so fast they would find me long before I got any where near our final destination at Glynneath.

Riding from here was easy but not as pleasant as before, mostly dual carriageway until the turn off into the town of Glynneath. I must admit it was fun trying to find my own way in a foreign country without a map. Okay it’s not that foreign, but it wasn’t England and the road signs were in a funny language! All the time I was looking in my mirrors to see if I could see the others, but they didn’t appear. When I saw the sign for Glynneath I felt a warm feeling come over me and I couldn’t help but smile and laugh to myself. I followed a twisty road up the side of a big hill until I saw the orange triangles pointing me in the right direction for the campsite where I would be staying.

Still on my own, I trundled up the hill at what felt like 0 mph onto the site of the Dawn to Dusk where I would be marshalling, and the very man who had inspired me to go on this trip, Charley Boorman, would be racing. On my way up to the site I was quite glad Milky wasn’t there because it felt even better that I had ridden the last bit by myself. It was a shame they caught up with me as I was pulling in!

I didn’t care, we’d made it. Jack, me, and my Fizzy were on the top of a mountain in South Wales, 219 miles from my house in southeast London. And I’d do it all again tomorrow!

Martin Newman

This article first appeared in issue 98 in November 2005

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